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The Unknown Plague

Postcard from a Supermarket Near You

By Nicholas F. Josefowitz

A SUPERMARKET NEAR YOU—Before Moses sent a plague that killed all the first-borns in the land of Egypt, he sent out a warning. Before over-eager scientists sent out the plague of genetically modified (GM) crops, they didn’t even bother.

Since their introduction in 1994, GM foods have been swiftly seeping into our food chain without our even knowing about it. Who would have thought that if you walk down the average supermarket aisle, over 60 percent of the processed food will be made from genetically engineered produce? On the farms themselves, over 81 percent of all soybeans and 40 percent of all wheat grown in the United States this year has been genetically manipulated. There are no labels and no indications that the majority of what we are eating may not be as wholesome and natural as we thought, but conceived in the laboratory of a corporate Dr. Frankenstein. Did you know that almost every load of bread sold contains wheat that has been genetically manipulated to produce its own pesticide?

And it’s not as if we are all dying to devour these new techno-foods. Quite the opposite. Surveys conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology show that over two-thirds of Americans are concerned about the safety of eating genetically modified foods in general. The U.S. government has even acknowledged the public’s deep malaise, as it steadfastly objects to the labeling of genetically modified foods—arguing that it would harm sales. It has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization, claiming that consumers are so skeptical of the genetic manipulation of their food that simply adding a label stating that a particular product is GM, as the European Union is proposing, would constitute a severe “disruption of international trade.”

This reticence to ingest lab-foods is not a manifestation of the public’s Luddite mentality, but a genuine scientific concern about the possibly lethal danger posed by genetic modifications. Although few studies have been carried out, the potential human health risks of genetic modifications have been well established. For instance, when a gene from a plant that can cause allergic reactions is added to a previously safe food that caused no allergies, this new genetically modified food becomes a disguised killer. One study tested natural soybeans that had been genetically altered by implanting a gene from Brazil nuts to increase their sulphur content. These soybeans, which had caused no allergic reaction previous to being genetically modified, now caused potentially fatal allergic reactions in those people with nut allergies. Since the GM soybeans are not labeled—they are not differentiated from natural soybeans at all—there is no way that people with nut allergies can even think of avoiding them. This danger was so great, that upon publication of this study the GM soybeans were immediately removed from the market and all production was discontinued. Shockingly, the U.S. regulatory authorities do not require any such tests to be carried out on GM foods, and it was only a group of proactive private researchers that discovered the danger. Next time, we may not be as lucky.

And there is no doubt that there will be a next time. Genetically modified crops have become so widespread that, even if we wanted to, it would take years to switch back to natural produce—and it may already be completely impossible. By 2000, farmers in the U.S. alone were planting over 75 million acres—18 percent of the total cropland and an area three times larger than the state of New York—with GM crops, and this figure is increasing at an almost exponential rate. More worryingly, though, these GM crops are not only spreading through increases in voluntary planting, but clandestinely by migrating to and establishing themselves in previously GM-free fields.

In almost all of North America it has now become almost impossible for farmers planting natural crops to avoid genetic pollution from migrating GM seeds. In Iowa in 2001, for example, only 1 percent of the fields were planted with genetically engineered wheat (the infamous StarLink variety, in this case), yet eventually 50 percent of Iowa’s wheat fields were contaminated. North of the border, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, organic farmers were so affected that they are in the process of filing a class-action lawsuit against Monsanto for making it impossible for them to grow GM-free organic canola on their land. Canadian wheat farmers are also threatening a similar suit.

Yet the problem is not simply caused by weak regulation in North America: the British government has also acknowledged the danger. In December last year the National Institute for Agricultural Botany declared that no GM canola could be grown in England without contaminating the entire British crop, including the fields producing organic or non-GM produce. In addition, the British government asserted that natural canola could not be grown for at least a year on a field where engineered canola had been grown previously due to the contamination from residual genetically engineered canola seeds.

For those who want natural food there’s almost no place left to look, and the situation is looking gloomy. As Pope John Paul II reminded us in an open air mass three years ago, if we dare become “the tyrants of the earth rather than its custodians...sooner or later the earth [will] rebel.” After years of neglect, our only hope now is to start a rebellion against GM foods, before the earth starts one for us.

Nicholas F. Josefowitz ’05, an associate editorial chair of The Crimson, is a history concentrator in Mather House. He has spent the summer trying to remodify his GM cornflakes to enjoy them in full organic splendor.

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